Every Day – Great Leaders Understand Small Gestures

This past summer, I was in Victoria, BC, for a few glorious warm sun, beautiful seas with family, and doing good business with great people.

I posted a silly picture of a minor tourist attraction, and to my surprise, I received a Fb message for a soldier of mine who became a good friend of the family who had recently been posted to the Naval Base there.

We quickly arranged an impromptu reunion over a coffee. It was an added bonus to see this guy after many years and to hear how successful he had become.

When we left the coffee shop, he asked me to see his new motorcycle, and while we admired this beautiful machine, he reached into the saddlebag and pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to me.

It was a copy of a letter of reference I had written for him in 1997.


Neither of us could remember exactly why I wrote it. And, for me, it was a small decent thing to do for a good person. But to be honest, it was one of the hundreds of letters and recommendations I have made for people throughout my career.

But he had carried that letter around with him for 24 years, so it was a big thing for him.

Recently I read an HBR article about Sheldon Yellen, CEO of BELFOR Holdings, who grew sales to more than $1.5 billion. BELFOR’s people jump into action after a flood, tornado, or fire damages or destroys property. It’s a tough, dirty, dangerous business. To express his appreciation, Yellen sends handwritten birthday cards to each employee every year—that’s 9,200 cards, plus additional anniversary cards, thank-you notes, and messages for a job well done, for a total of 12,000 or so handwritten notes per year.

Yellen once said that “Doing this has helped build a culture of compassion, family, and respect,” he said. Need evidence? When Yellen turned 60, he got an appropriate gift—more than 8,000 handwritten birthday cards from BELFOR employees, who wanted to show their appreciation for the CEO’s tradition.

Small gestures

Small gestures—references or recommendations, body language or handwritten messages—can send significant signals about who we are, what we care about, and why we do what we do.

The fantastic thing about a small gesture is that we have no idea the impact that it will have.

Like throwing a stone into a pond, the ripples go far, and we will likely never see what the impact that little rock will have.

I believe that my friend would have been successful without that letter as he has been, but what if I had blown him off that day? What if I had dismissed him because I was ‘to busy.’

What if Mr. Yellen drove hard every day to hit a financial target and didn’t take the time to write those notes?

We’ll never know, but even (maybe especially) in this age of digital disruption and creative destruction, never underestimate the power of a small gesture.

Don’t let technology or business overwhelm your humanity.

The cost is small, and the ROI is unfathomable and unimaginable.


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